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Tick-borne diseases: a real threat to our pets

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Tick-borne diseases in dogs and cats – what exactly are the risks for our pets, and for us? Ticks are parasites that feed on warm-blooded mammals – including dogs, cats and, potentially, us. They latch onto the skin and suck blood, dropping off once they’ve finished feeding, although this can take days. Tick bites themselves can be irritating and may cause infection, but the real problem is the diseases that ticks can transmit, including the headline-grabbing Lyme disease (or borreliosis), ehrlichiosis and babesiosis.
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Ticks: the risk to ourselves and to our dogs
Ticks aren’t too choosy about their hosts; the common UK tick will quite happily bite a dog, a cat or even you. Tick disease symptoms in dogs will vary depending on the specific disease.

In Lyme disease, dogs may show signs of loss of appetite, tiredness, painful joints and swollen lymph nodes. Humans are also at risk of Lyme disease – with a number of high profile cases including the singer Shania Twain. Symptoms in humans include a distinctive ‘bullseye’ rash up to six inches wide around the bite, along with tiredness, muscle and joint pain, neck pain and headaches. Left untreated, the disease can lead to serious problems including paralysis and meningitis. It is estimated that there are 2-3,000 new cases of Lyme disease in people in the UK each year.

Tick-borne encephalitis is a virus spread by ticks that is not present in the UK, but can be encountered elsewhere in Europe and Asia, and can affect dogs and people. Encephalitis symptoms in dogs include tremors, convulsions and paralysis. Ehrlichiosis is a tick-borne infection of dogs that affects the white blood cells. This disease is not currently present in the UK, but if you travel abroad with your dog he may be at risk. Symptoms are very variable and can include fever, weight loss, discharge from the eyes and nose and swollen lymph nodes, among others.

Babesiosis is another tick-borne disease to be wary of. It’s rare in the UK, but outbreaks have been reported in UK dogs that haven’t left the country, and the disease can be fatal. This parasite invades the dog’s red blood cells, causing severe anaemia. Symptoms of babesiosis in dogs include weakness, lethargy, pale gums, red urine, yellowing skin and fever. Ticks can cause disease in the UK, but if you’re planning on travelling abroad with your dog, they may also be at risk from non-UK diseases, so regular tick protection is recommended.

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What about cats?
Tick-borne diseases in cats are much less common, but ticks can still cause problems in cats, for example if the tick bite becomes infected. Ticks, as well as fleas, can also transmit a disease called Mycoplasma to cats, which can lead to severe anaemia.

Dealing with tick-borne diseases
Tick- borne diseases can be difficult to treat, and early recognition and treatment is important, so always consult a doctor or vet if you are concerned about a member of your family or your pet. The best way to help protect your pets from these diseases is to try and avoid them being bitten by ticks in the first place. There are a number of tick products on the market including spot-ons, tablets and medicated collars. Speak to your vet about preventative products to help protect your pet against ticks.

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Did you know…
American band Deer Tick came up with their name when frontman John McCauley found a deer tick in his scalp after a day’s hiking. Luckily, he escaped without Lyme disease, which is a less catchy name for a band.